Having just seen four days of incredible agility at Crufts, many people will have been inspired to have a go with their pet dog. Some will want to have a go for fun with no thoughts of competition, while others will dream of getting to the green carpet of Crufts themselves.
But can any dog take part?
One of the things I love most about agility is how inclusive it is. Dogs of any breed and background can take part, and all abilities are catered for. But this inclusivity does mean that it is up to the individual owner to determine whether their dog should do agility. For while any dog is able to, it doesn’t mean that agility is the right choice for every dog.
Things to consider -
Is your dog fit and healthy to begin with? Agility shouldn’t be used to get them fit. If your dog is overweight, or unused to strenuous exercise, your first priority should be to work on their fitness to avoid placing extra stress on their joints. You may be able to join foundation agility classes which focus on flatwork, but you shouldn’t consider doing any impact equipment until your dog is fully fit. Agility won’t get your dog fit if they aren’t already, they do need a good level of fitness to safely take part.
Does your dog have any underlying orthopaedic conditions? While there are some amazing grade 7 dogs competing with conditions like hip dysplasia, in most cases these dogs were already supremely fit before diagnosis, and are being monitored carefully to ensure they are fit and not doing themselves any harm. If you know your dog has an orthopaedic condition, you must discuss this with a vet before considering training. And again, fitness will be key. And each dog will experience a condition in a different way. Just because several other dogs have returned to or taken up agility after a diagnosis, doesn’t mean that your dog will be able to.
Consider your dogs structure. Some breeds are not built in such a way that agility is the best choice for them. This isn’t knocking anyone with an unusual breed already taking part as each dog is an individual, but for those wishing to get involved it’s something to consider. Long backed breeds like the Daschund who are also at high risk of IVDD will experience considerable impact on their spine. Giant breed dogs like the St Bernard or Newfoundland will experience impact on their joints due to their weight when jumping if they were to jump their competition height, and should also consider things like the dog walk as the width is narrow compare to their size, giving them a higher risk of falling.
But even if you own a more typical breed, you still need to consider your individual dogs structure. Labradors are one of the more common breeds especially for people starting out with their family pet. But a stocky show lab is very different from the taller leaner working bred lab. Both will measure in to the large category, but while one will more than likely clear the jumps with ease, the extra bone and muscle density of a show lab places more strain on the joints. And you may have a border collie, but you still need to look at things like shoulder angulation, height and build, and how your dog naturally moves.
While I’d love to think that agility is for all dogs, we have to be realistic about our own dogs suitability for it. If you have a dog you have concerns about but want to get involved, what can you do?
Fitness work - keep your dog at their ideal weight, with a good level of fitness. Check out the canine conditioning academy for core strength and flexibility training. If your dog has a specific weakness or imbalance, physiotherapy by vet referral can give them targeted exercises.
Regular muscular health checks - I firmly believe in getting your dog checked regularly of course as a canine massage therapist, both because of minor issues I have been able to pick up in other dogs and also my own dogs experiences. If you are competing pop over to a Canine Massage Guild stand for a free muscular health check. I would recommend that all competing dogs or those just training regularly have a pre season, mid season and end of season massage which can keep the muscles in top condition, and pick up minor things before they become bigger. And while we are not vets and so can’t diagnose, we will refer you back to your vet if we find anything of concern.
What is your dog able to do? Assess with your trainer, vet and anyone else involved in your dogs health care like your canine massage therapist what you can do to make agility appropriate for your dog. While some dogs may never be able to compete, they may be able to train on very low height jumps, avoiding some equipment, and possibly adapting the types of courses they run.
Pick the right competition for your dog - if your dog is able to compete you still need to consider which height they should be jumping. It looks as though kennel club heights may be dropping in the future which I welcome, but you need to look at what height suits your dog best. So if you have a large kennel club dog that you believe is more comfortable over lower jumps, then currently you can make the choice to run lower height or run at UKA, rather than expecting them to jump higher just so you can run in qualifiers. While jump heights and qualifiers suitable for all is what we would like, until they exist don’t put your dog at risk by jumping higher than you really should be, regardless of what others are doing.
Minimal training - top competitor and trainer Natasha Wise says that dogs only have so many jumps in them. It’s our job to preserve them as best as possible. That means not overtraining, and when we’re learning something new we can do it without a pole at first, before we add in our proper jump height. Good flatwork and foundations takes away the need for constantly drilling dogs over sequences.
In the same way that almost anyone can run, but not everyone can be an Olympic sprinter, almost any dog can do agility but not all are able to or should aim to compete at a high level. It’s up to us to be realistic about our own dog, and make sure that we enjoy our hobby in a way that is safe and fun for our own dog, regardless of our own ambitions.